Life Lessons Learned from “The Muppet Show”

Life Lessons Learned from “The Muppet Show” January 14, 2020

I have a good friend and colleague in the philosophy department who has twin daughters. Several years ago, during the summer between his daughters’ junior and senior years in high school, my friend and his family visited seventeen different college campuses.  The young ladies in question, although twins, could not be more different in appearance or personality. Daughter #1, whose interests were predominantly focused on science, favored Dartmouth College but was also very interested in the University of Virginia and Emory University. Daughter #2, a quieter more bookish type, was strongly attracted to St. John’s College and its curriculum of the Great Books.

This prompted my friend to email me, knowing that in the misty past—the middle 1970s—I earned my Bachelor’s degree at St. John’s. “Do you have anything you would like to tell Daughter #2?” he asked. In reply I wrote:

I’m the world’s worst alum, but I’m quite sure that the program at St. John’s is virtually unchanged over the 40 years since I was there. I’ve recommended it very infrequently–it’s perfect for the right person, but there are very few “right persons” for what they do. If Daughter #2 loves books more than anything else, loves to talk, discuss and debate ideas 24/7, is ready to work really hard, is more concerned about learning than preparation for a job, and doesn’t care a lot about intercollegiate sports (there aren’t any at St. John’s), then she might be the “right person”!

“Sounds just like Daughter #2,” my friend said. I suspect the description might sound familiar to my “Johnnie” friends and Facebook acquaintances as well.

It is now 45 years since I began my freshman year at St. John’s College. The older I get, the more I realize what a life-shaping experience I was beginning. I have written frequently on this blog about how the Great Books program shaped me as a teacher and how it stirred my soul in lasting ways. But one of the most memorable regular occurrences during my years in Santa Fe had nothing to do with tutors, books, labs or seminars.

The heart of the St. John’s curriculum is the seminar, which occurs every Monday and Thursday night from 8-10. Actually I don’t remember a seminar ever ending at 10:00. They always went at least until 10:30, then continued informally in the coffee shop until midnight. What was happening in the hour before seminar on Thursday nights? Students rushing to finish the reading? Checking notes and annotations one more time? Grabbing a quick forty winks? None of the above, because at 7:00 PM every Thursday night in the lower dorms common room everyone—and I mean everyone, tutors included—gathered to watch “The Muppet Show.”

Strange to say, “The Muppet Show” was just irreverent and bizarre enough to be a perfect fit for the young misfits who had chosen to spend their first years of college immersed in the “Great Books,” the best texts the Western tradition had to offer organized into a curriculum so rigid and liturgical as to not allow students a single elective choice in class offerings until their Junior year (and even then only one class). I was too young to know then what I know now, forty-five years older and with almost thirty years of college teaching experience behind me: a college curriculum with no electives runs so against the normal grain of  pedagogy in this country that it sounds more suitable for youngsters from Mars than for earthlings.

“The Muppet Show” was more for adults (or at least non-children) than for kids; definitely not your kid’s or grandkid’s Sesame Street, although many of the characters were the same. Current events, the best human guest stars (none of whom visited more than once)—in many ways it played the role that shows like “The Daily Show” and “Saturday Night Live” now play. I have occasionally taken the “Which Muppet Are You?” online quiz, and regularly get the same result—Kermit the Frog. Nothing against Kermit or against the quiz—but this is wrong, because I have known for forty-five years which Muppet I am (actually two of them):

Since the first time I observed Statler and Waldorf criticizing and mocking everyone and everything on the stage from their perch in the box seats, I recognized them as stuffed soul mates. The natural foundations of my sense of humor are sarcasm, irreverence, bemusement, and irony—an extreme case of “don’t ever take anything too seriously.” Their removal from the action but self-authorization to critique the action from afar is very attractive to an introvert; it also provides an avenue for the introvert to be “involved” without really being involved.

It could be that Statler and Waldorf did nothing but sit up in the box seats and critique even when they were young muppets, but I choose to believe that, given their elderly status, they were “in the trenches” guys for decades and now have earned the right to step back and make fun as others make the same mistakes they made in their youth. I resonated with Statler and Waldorf because their senses of humor are just like mine and they struck a deep introverted chord in me. Both of these things are still true, but now I not only resonate with S and W—I am on the cusp of becoming them. I also have earned the right.

The new semester started yesterday; I’m greatly enjoying the part of my career where (I assume) my administrative duties as department chair and program director are behind me and all I have to do is teach and write. I’ve done my time. Of course as they say, if you want to give God a good laugh, tell her your plans. But there they are.

Whatever the future holds, I believe that as I proceed through my sixties I am entitled to channel Statler and Waldorf on whatever occasions I deem appropriate. I even look a lot like them. They say that couples who have been together for a long time start looking like each other, just as dogs and their owners start resembling each other. I sure as hell hope that neither of those turns out to be true (at least for Jeanne and Winnie). But it is indeed true that over time each of us starts to resemble our stuffed soul mate. In my case, it could be a lot worse.

 


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